By Simon Jenkins (THE GUARDIAN, 21/02/07):
Countries too have feelings. So I am told by a Russian explaining the recent collapse in relations between Vladimir Putin and his one-time western admirers. “We have done well in the past 15 years, yet we get nothing but rebuffs and insults. Russia’s rulers have their pride, you know.”The truth is that Putin, like George Bush and Tony Blair, has an urgent date with history. He can plead two terms as president in which he has stabilised, if not deepened, Russian democracy, forced the pace of economic modernisation, suppressed Chechen separatism and yet been remarkably popular. But leaders who dismiss domestic critics crave international opinion, and are unaccustomed to brickbats. Hence Putin’s outburst at the Munich security conference this month, when he announced he would “avoid extra politesse” and speak his mind.
Putin’s apologists ask that he be viewed as victim of an epic miscalculation by the west. Here is a hard man avidly courted at first by Bush, Blair and other western leaders. After 9/11 he tolerated US intervention along his southern border with bases north of Afghanistan. Yet when he had similar trouble in Chechnya, he was roundly abused. When he induced Milosevic to leave Kosovo (which he and not “the bombing” did), he got no thanks.
When Putin sought to join Nato in the 1990s he was rebuffed. Then Nato broke its post-cold-war promise and advanced its frontier through the Baltics and Poland to the Black Sea. It is now planning missile defences in Poland and the Czech Republic and is flirting with Ukraine and Georgia. Against whom is this directed, asks Putin.
The west grovels before Opec, but when Putin proposes a gas Opec it cries foul. America seizes Iraq’s oil, but when Putin nationalises Russia’s oil that, too, is a foul. Meanwhile, every crook, every murdered Russian, every army scandal is blazoned across the western press. True, Russia is still a klepto-oligarchy that steps back as often as forward, but what of America’s pet Asian democracies, Afghanistan and Iraq?
In his Munich speech Putin asked why America constantly goes on about its “unipolar world”. Does Washington really seek a second cold war? Russia is withdrawing from Georgia and Moldova. Why is Nato advancing bases in Bulgaria and Romania? The west is handling Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran with the arrogance and ineptitude of 19th-century imperialists. Is it surprising Russia is seeking allies where it can, in China, India, Iran and the Gulf?
At an Anglo-Russian conference in Moscow last weekend I was bemused by the talk of a return to “east-west” confrontation. Diplomats have a habit of listing complaints like marriage counsellors inviting couples to catalogue what most irritates them about each other. The list seems endless, but it surely points to a proper talk rather than a divorce. Don’t they really need each other after all?
Having visited Russia three times since the demise of the Soviet Union, I remain impressed by its progress. Debate and comment are open. Russia is not squandering its energy wealth but setting $100bn aside in an infrastructure fund. The links between Russia and western business are worth $30bn in inward investment. Cultural and educational contacts are strengthening. Moscow and St Petersburg are booming world cities, their skylines thick with cranes.
The west views pluralist democracy as so superior that any state coming to it fresh must surely welcome it with open arms. When there is backsliding, as in former Yugoslavia, Ukraine, Russia and parts of Africa, let alone the Arab world, the west behaves like a peevish car salesman whose client has not obeyed the repair manual. If the west can do fair elections, market capitalism, press freedom and regional secession – after a mere two centuries of trial and error – why can newly free states not do them overnight?
The tough response to Putin is easy. It is the one he has from Washington and Nato. We won the cold war. You lost. Shut up. If, as Russia’s top general said last week, you want to withdraw from the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty, then withdraw. If you think gas and oil enables you to play the superpower again, see what happens. Bush and Blair may be screwing up “Islamistan”, but their successors will be more canny. Our defence budget is bigger than yours and we have you surrounded.
All this makes for good realpolitik. But what Putin actually said in Munich reflected not belligerence but puzzlement at the aggressive course of western diplomacy. In the old days, he said, “there was an equilibrium and a fear of mutual destruction. In those days one party was afraid to make an extra step without consulting the others. This was certainly a fragile peace and a frightening one, but seen from today it was reliable enough. Today it seems that peace is not so reliable.”
Putin is hardly seeking a return to the certainties of the cold war. He has no more interest than the west in stirring the hornet’s nest of Islamic nationalism, stretching as it does deep into Russian territory. His desire for “ever closer union” with Europe and Nato after 1997 was sincere and was surely welcome.
While Putin appears to have been conducting his diplomacy over the past decade from weakness and the west from strength, the reverse has been nearer the truth. Britain and America have been led by essentially reactive politicians with no grasp of history. A terrorist outrage or a bombastic speech and they change policy on the hop. When Bush and Blair go, they will leave a world less secure and more divided in its leadership than when they arrived. Their dismissive treatment of Russia’s recovery from cold war defeat has been the rhetoric of natural bullies.
Russia and the west have everything to gain from good relations. Putin has struggled to modernise his economy while holding together a traumatised and shrunken Russian federation. The west may feel he errs towards authoritarianism, but second-guessing Russian leaders is seldom a profitable exercise. This is a huge country, rich in natural and human resources. It is hard to think of somewhere the west would be better advised to “hug close”. Instead, Putin will hand his successor an isolated and bruised nation. Under a less confident president, it could retreat into protectionism and alliances the west will hate. To have encouraged that retreat is truly stupid.